There’s no doubt Josh Hader is going to land the largest contract of any reliever this offseason. The more interesting question is whether he’ll establish a new high-water mark for bullpen arms.
Edwin Díaz became the first reliever to cross the nine-figure threshold. The right-hander re-signed with the Mets on a five-year, $102MM pact shortly before free agency opened during the 2022-23 offseason. (Deferrals reduced the contract’s valuation for luxury tax purposes to a little above $93MM.) That set a clear target for Hader’s camp.
Andy Martino of SNY wrote last week that teams engaged with Hader believe he’s shooting for that record. It makes for an interesting comparison between the two pitchers. Díaz was a year younger than Hader is now. The former was going into his age-29 season, while the latter turns 30 not long after Opening Day.
Hader has been a little better from a run prevention perspective. In 388 2/3 career innings, he owns a 2.50 ERA. Díaz had a 2.93 mark over 399 1/3 frames entering free agency (which is still the case because he missed the 2023 season after injuring his knee celebrating a triumph in the World Baseball Classic). While Hader showed a willingness to work multiple innings early in his career, he made clear that he preferred to occupy a single-inning role in recent seasons. Their overall body of work is about the same, while their platform-year ERAs are quite similar.
Díaz allowed a 1.31 ERA over 62 innings in 2022; Hader surrendered 1.28 earned runs per nine through 56 1/3 frames a year ago. There’s very little difference between those two numbers, although Hader probably has the more impressive figure when placed in league context. The league average ERA for relievers jumped from 3.86 to 4.17, likely reflecting both a somewhat livelier ball and rule changes implemented over the 2022-23 offseason (i.e. shift limitations) designed to tilt the game more toward offense.
Of course, there’s far more to a pitcher’s performance than keeping runs off the board. That’s particularly true for relievers, whose numbers can be skewed greatly by one poor outing (or simply a subpar defense). Díaz is probably more dominant on a pitch-for-pitch basis. While Hader has the slight edge in career strikeout rate, his approximate 37% mark in each of the past two seasons are his lowest since his rookie year. That’s still an elite number, to be clear, but it’s well shy of the laughable 50.2% of hitters whom Díaz fanned in 2022.
Opponents swung through nearly a quarter of all pitches that Díaz threw in his platform year. Hader’s 15.6% swinging strike percentage from last season was “merely” excellent, the 18th-highest rate in MLB among pitchers with 50+ innings. Díaz’s mark not only led the majors in 2022, it was three percentage points clear of second-place Andrés Muñoz. Díaz also throws a bit harder. He averaged north of 99 MPH on his fastball and nearly 91 MPH on his slider. Hader’s 96 MPH fastball and 86 MPH slider are more conventional velocity figures, although they’ve each proven almost unhittable.
The Padres made Hader a qualifying offer. New York re-signed Díaz before the deadline to make the QO but surely would have done so if they hadn’t agreed to a long-term deal. The Mets knew that re-signing Díaz was waiving their ability to collect the draft compensation they’d have received if he departed, which was presumably factored into the contract price.
Unlike the Mets, San Diego seems content to take the compensatory pick. The Padres have cut payroll and suggested they’re not going to spend at the top of the market. There haven’t been many suitors to emerge publicly. The Orioles were linked to Hader early in the offseason. They signed Craig Kimbrel to a $13MM deal and now profile as a long shot for a top-of-the-market relief splash. Teams like the Yankees, Dodgers and Rangers have been mentioned as speculative fits but without firm ties. Joel Sherman of the New York Post suggested this morning the Mets weren’t likely to be in on Hader.
Hader is one of the three to five best relievers in the sport. His camp has surely received calls that have gone unreported. Yet it’s a little surprising there haven’t been more public revelations on his market.
How will things play out? Will Hader top Díaz and where will he end up?